Floyd Bloom

GANGS AND DRUGS Youth gangs have been part of the U.S. urban landscape for over 200 years. From the earliest mentions of gangs in the social commentaries of post-Revolutionary War America, gangs have been linked to the use and trafficking of illicit intoxicants. In the late eighteenth century, for example, gangs such as the Fly Boys, the Smith's Vly gang, and the Bowery Boys were well known in the streets of New York City (Sante, 1991). As European immigration increased in the early nineteenth century, gangs such as the Kerryonians (from County Kerry in Ireland) and the Forty Thieves formed in the overcrowded slums of the Lower East Side (of New York City). Gangs proliferated quickly in that time, with such colorful names as the Plug Uglies, the Roach Guards, the Hide-Binders (comprised mainly of butchers), the Old Slippers (a group of shoemakers' apprentices) and the Shirt Tails. Many of these gangs were born in the corner groceries that were the business and social center of the neighborhoods. These groceries also hid the groggeries that were important features of neighborhood life, and guarding them provided a steady income for the gangs. Although not involved in theft, robbery, or the unsavory professions of GAMBLING or tavern-keeping, these gangs warred regularly over territory with weapons— including stones and early versions of the blackjack. They occasionally joined forces to defend their neighborhood, and nearly all were united in their opposition to the police.

Los Angeles police officers search suspected members of the Rolling 60s gang for weapons and drugs during a sweep in south Los Angeles, March 31, 1985. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

Throughout the nineteenth century, gangs emerged in the large cities of the Northeast, in Chicago and in other industrial centers of the Midwest. In the early twentieth century, gangs also formed in the Mexican immigrant communities of California and the Southwest. In what still is widely regarded as the classic work on youth gangs, Thrasher (1927) identified over 1,300 street gangs in the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of industrial Chicago in the 1920s. He interpreted the rise of Chicago's gangs as symptoms of deteriorating neighborhoods and the shifting populations that accompanied industrialization and the changing populations that lived in the interstitial areas between the central city and the industrial regions that ringed it. Wherever neighborhoods in large cities were in transition, gangs emerged, and their involvement in drinking and minor drug use was a regular feature of gang life.

In the 1990s, gangs became present in large and small cities in nearly every state. They reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of American society (Klein, 1992). Gangs are no longer colorful, turf-oriented groups of adolescents from immigrant or poor neighborhoods. Whereas gangs in the past were likely to claim streetcorners as their turf, gangs today may invoke the concept of turf to stake claims to shopping malls, skating rinks, school corridors, or even cliques of women. Gangs use graffiti and ''tagging'' to mark turf and communicate news and messages to other gangs and gang members

(Huff, 1989). The participation and roles of young women in gangs has also changed. Through the 1960s, women were involved in gangs either as auxiliaries or branches of males gangs, or they were weapons carriers and decoys for male gang members. Today, female gangs have emerged that are independent of male gangs. Fights are common between the new female gangs. There also is some evidence of sexually integrated gangs, where females fight alongside males (Taylor, 1993).

Traditionally, stealing and other petty economic crimes have long been the backbone of gang economic life. For example, Saint Francis of Assisi commented that nothing gave him greater pleasure than stealing in the company of his friends. English common law in the 13th century accorded especially harsh punishments to the roving bands of youths who moved across the countryside stealing from farmers and merchants. The House of Refuge, the first U.S. residential institution for boys, opened in New York City in 1824, largely in response to the unsupervised groups of youths who roamed the city stealing and drinking. For some contemporary gangs, however, entrepreneurial goals, especially involving drug selling, have replaced the cultural goals of ethnic solidarity and neighborhood defense that historically motivated gang participation and activities. A few gangs have functional ties to adult organized crime groups. Other gangs have become involved in drug selling and have developed a corporate structure that has replaced the vertical organization that in the past regulated gang life.

This article examines recent data on the drug and alcohol involvement of street gangs. Recent changes in the social structure of cities has led to a new generation of gangs and gang cities. We look to these changes in cities and neighborhoods to explain the new patterns of substance use and drug distribution among gangs. Changes in the conception of work, the institutionalization of drug selling, and cultural shifts in gangs and ganging, have influenced gang involvement in drugs and alcohol. This article discusses the relationship between political and economic factors that shape the social structure of communities, the neighborhood effects that result from those forces, and the mediating effects of neighborhood processes on the formation of gangs and their use of substances.

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